Vandals attack synagogues in Russia

Unidentified attackers vandalized two synagogues in Russia on Friday, shattering windows at one and briefly setting a door ablaze at another in attacks that highlighted rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Russia. No one was reported injured. Russia’s chief rabbi Berel Lazar said the Jewish community was shocked by the attacks, which happened hours before the Jewish New Year begins at sundown Friday.

“It’s a pity that there are still some people who think they can solve their problems by hurling stones at holy buildings,” Lazar said in a statement released by his office. “It’s particularly sad that these incidents happened on the eve of the Jewish New Year.

If those who attacked the synagogues expected to scare Jews on those holy days, they have been mistaken.”

In one pre-dawn attack on the synagogue in Khabarovsk, a city of 580,000 on the border with China, attackers shattered windows in the building which was empty at that hour, the regional department of the Interior Ministry said. A criminal investigation was launched into the attack.

Last summer, unidentified attackers spilled gasoline at the same synagogue’s entrance and set it on fire. No one was hurt in that incident and there was no damage to the building. Police have failed to track down the perpetrators, the Interior Ministry’s regional department said.

In another attack early Friday, unknown assailants threw a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in the Volga River city of Astrakhan in southern Russia, setting its door ablaze. A guard at the building quickly put down the fire, the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted a district prosecutor Sergei Knizhnikov as saying.

A spokesman for the city police confirmed that the synagogue had been vandalized, saying that no one was hurt and refusing to give further details.

Russia has seen a marked rise in xenophobia and hate crimes in recent years that rights groups say is fueled in part by the authorities’ reluctance to crack down on hate crimes and tackle growing nationalism. In an apparent response to such criticism, a man who burst into a Moscow synagogue last January and stabbed nine people with a hunting knife was sentenced to 16 years in prison last week.

Nationalist groups may have launched Friday’s attacks to avenge Alexander Koptsev’s conviction, said Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, which monitors xenophobia and extremist groups.

“Radical nationalist circles were pained by the severe sentence handed down” to him, Brod said, according to the Interfax news agency. “The attacks on synagogues in Astrakhan and Khabarovsk are a response to this just sentence.”

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